February 3, 2006

KBLA 1580, Los Angeles, CA


It's not the first frequency that comes to mind when you think of Los Angeles radio, to be sure, but there's a lot of history behind the Santa Monica-licensed signal on 1580 that's now known as KBLA.

It was way back in 1947 when KOWL signed on from Santa Monica as a 5,000-watt daytimer on 1580. (Gene Autry was an early co-owner of the station, before he moved on to much bigger things.) A decade later, the station changed calls to KDAY, and it was under that set of calls that 1580 became an important part of L.A. radio history, targeting the city's black audience. It was about that time, also, that the station went to 50,000 watts from its transmitter site on National Boulevard in Santa Monica, still as a daytimer, using the first RCA Ampliphase transmitter to be installed in the L.A. market.

Around 1970, KDAY lost the three-tower National Boulevard site, and that's when the six 208-foot towers you see above were built. (The ASR records for the towers inexplicably show them to have been built in 1947, but that's not the case.) This array sits atop a hill at the corner of Alvarado and Effie Streets, in a neighborhood of steeply-sloping streets on the edge of Chavez Ravine, almost within sight of Dodger Stadium. Here, KDAY built a two-story studio/transmitter facility, installing serial #1 of the Gates (later Harris) VP-50 transmitter along with a 10 kW Gates salvaged from the old site. The move to this site, north of downtown L.A., enabled 1580 to go full-time, running the full 50 kW into four towers by day and into all six at night, creating a tight lobe to the west that covered downtown and L.A.'s west side on its way out to the city of license, some 15 miles away, and the ocean beyond.

In the eighties, KDAY moved from the R&B that made it famous into a brand-new genre of music, becoming widely acknowledged as the first successful commercial hip-hop station back when most stations wouldn't touch the music.

By 1991, though, FM stations such as KPWR (and later KKBT) had picked up on the hip-hop trend, and the music on KDAY came to an end. (The calls would return to the market a decade and a half later on the class A signal on 93.5, promoting itself as "Hip-Hop Today and Back in the Day.")

1580 became KBLA, "Business Radio L.A.," with much of the programming piped in by satellite. In later years, the business talk would give way to a variety of ethnic programming, with the station spending time as the L.A. outlet for Spanish talk network Radio Unica, then becoming one of the inaugural affiliates for Air America upon its launch in early 2004.

That didn't go well, as a dispute between Air America and station owner Arthur Liu led to the plug being pulled quickly on the new talk network (which would later resurface on KTLK 1150), with 1580 returning to ethnic programming. It now simulcasts Spanish religion with KALI (900 West Covina), which fills in the gaps to the east that 1580 doesn't reach.

There haven't been studios or offices at the Alvarado Street site in many years, and a few years ago the big two-story glass window (shown below) that looked into the lobby from the driveway was boarded up. (There were, oddly, never any other windows in the place; even the offices with exterior walls were windowless.)

The VP-50 was replaced a few years ago, as well (are there any VP-50s still running anywhere in the U.S.?), and in the process the transmitter room on the first floor (down the hall from the studios) was abandoned, with only the HVAC equipment left behind.

Instead, the second floor, where the sales offices had been, was gutted and rebuilt as a large transmitter room, with a long row of equipment (shown above) that includes the main DX50, the enormous phasor, racks of monitoring and STL gear, and a DX10 for backup duty.

A few years ago, Multicultural Broadcasting tried to make this a diplexed site, moving KYPA (1230 Los Angeles, which decades earlier, as KGFJ, had been KDAY's big competitor for the black audience) from its unique inverted-L wire antenna atop the old Oddfellows' Hall just south of downtown L.A. to one of the six KBLA towers. A small rack behind the 1580 transmitter was put in to hold a BE AM1A transmitter and basic STL gear, and a diplexer was put in on the back wall of the transmitter room to combine the 1230 signal with the 1580 transmission lines that go down through the floor of the transmitter room and out to the towers.

The KYPA setup was still in place when we visited in April 2005, but the 1230 signal wasn't operating from Alvarado Street. It turns out that the Radio Korea programming that KYPA carries reached its target audience better from the old longwire atop the Oddfellows' Hall, and so 1230 was back at that site, which we think is the oldest AM site still in use anywhere in the country, especially with the recent news that WSAJ in Grove City, PA has abandoned its AM license. (Got one that's older? Let us know!)

Beginning with next week's installment of Site of the Week, we leave southern California behind again - we're off to Minnesota and Wisconsin for the first part of all the towery goodness from last fall's "Big Trip, Upper Midwest Edition." See you then...

Special thanks to Marvin Collins for our visit!